A Townie goes to Kailua

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If you can’t relax here, it’s hard to imagine relaxing anywhere.

photo: Heather Titus

We live on a small island. For most of us, our worlds are narrower than that—our neighborhoods, our jobs and the clogged stretch of road between them. For me, that narrow corridor stretches from Hawaii Kai to downtown. I’ve lived in Hawaii for 30 years; many of those years have gone by without my ever setting foot in Kailua.

It was time to get to know Kailua firsthand.

There’s an experience that everyone in Kailua seems to share. I think of it as the Pali Tunnel Effect. Many Kailuans pursue a living in town and a lifestyle on the other side of the Pali. The transition seems to hit just as you drive through the tunnels and begin your descent to the Windward Side.

Describing this effect brings out the poet in people. I started a notebook page of descriptions. Here are four:

“It’s like just a flower opening inside you.”

“Still at the wheel of your car, you feel as if you’d kicked off your shoes and had a drink.”

“There’s a point when you look up and framed in golden light at the eye of the tunnel is Flat Island. I have to force myself to pay attention to the road.”

“You know how most places, you have to wait to get home, into your private space, before you take off your serious clothes and your serious hat, so to speak, and just live in your own skin? For some reason, for people here, just coming through the tunnel is like walking into their own house. By the time they get here, they’re different than when they are in town.”

As I drove over from town, a few hangers of clothes in the back seat, I failed to notice the Pali Tunnel Effect. It got me nonetheless.


That first night, my teenage daughter came over from town to have dinner with me.

A newly licensed driver, she’d never driven herself over the Pali before. For her, the Pali Effect was quite different. “I refuse to go faster than 50, and everyone’s passing me,” she complained into her cell phone. I guided her in by phone, something I got used to doing with almost everyone from town. I wish I had five dollars for every time I said, “If you’re passing Longs, you made the wrong turn.”

“Wow,” she said when she arrived, “they have their own Coldstone Creamery over here. Do they have Thai food?” Everyone has their own definition of a real town.

After a Thai dinner and ice cream, she left for home and homework. I contemplated going out. A younger friend of mine, who grew up on this side, had emailed me about what she called Kailua’s good handful of bars. “Most can be categorized pretty easily. The music bar, the sports bar, the biker bar, the Korean bar, the strip bar, the military bar, the karaoke bar, the bowling alley bar. This must all be fascinating,” she wrote.

Fascinating maybe. But by then I was back in the little studio apartment I’d taken for the week. The house below, where my host and hostess lived, was old-style Hawaii, single-wall construction, with a big wrap-around wooden lanai. At the end of the lanai was a spiral metal staircase, which took you nearly straight up, to a studio perched on the roof.

Once up, it was like being in a kid’s tree house, a secret hiding place. During the day, the hideaway was all light and air. Originally designed as a painter’s studio, it had white walls, blonde wood, glass doors and windows on four sides. In daylight, you could see the ocean peeking out beyond the surrounding houses. At night, you could still hear it.

Once I returned from dinner, I found it impossible to leave. “It’s only 8:30,” I thought to myself. I looked up at the loft bed.

I couldn’t stand in the loft, so I stretched out on the futon. Not bad, I thought, I’ll get back up in a minute. Lulled by the sound of surf and the whistling of the onshore trades, I fell into an immediate, deep, dark sleep.

The Pali Tunnel Effect had struck hard.